Do you want to learn exactly how to self-publish a book like a pro? I’ve been doing this for twelve years now — is it 2023 already?!? — and I’ve created this comprehensive guide to help you through the ten steps to successful self-publishing.
This guide covers everything from how to write a book that readers actually want, finding a professional editor, learning your niche and nailing your branding, how to format that manuscript of yours so it’s a perfectly reflowable ebook (some serious pitfalls here if you don’t know what you are doing), what price you should stick on that book of yours so that you can be enticing to readers but still make some scratch, and a few pointers on how to sell the blasted thing – as if you didn’t have enough to be getting on with! And that’s just for starters.
It’s a long, comprehensive post so use the menu below to click ahead, if needed. If you want my recommendation, grab a sandwich and read the whole thing. Hell, two sandwiches – it’s a monster – but there is a treat for you at the end. (It’s not another sandwich.) There’s even a place for you to ask questions at the bottom… if you have any left after digesting this beast!
- Write A Book Readers Want
- Find A Professional Editor
- Know Your Niche & Nail Your Branding
- Design Your Cover
- Lay Out Your Book To Capture Readers
- Format Your MS Into A Reflowable Ebook
- Decide Your Price
- Optimize Your Metadata
- Distribute Your Book
- Create A Marketing Plan & Get Reviews
- [FREE BONUS] Guide To Building Your Author Platform
- Your Questions On Self-Publishing
1. Write A Book Readers Want
You can write whatever you like. This is one of the joys of self-publishing and being the captain of your authorship. However, if you wish to sell you must write a book which readers actually want to buy.
Here we run right into the first misconception authors can have about marketing. The aim of marketing – the non-sleazy variety – is to connect customers with products they already want to buy.
Marketing is not about creating a desire to purchase but tapping into one that is already there.
Writing to Market
Of course, that also means that marketing isn’t about convincing someone to buy something they don’t truly want. Which is a problem if you have written for a niche audience but you’re selling it to a broader one.
If you want to self-publish a tragic love story about star-crossed space weasels, or a time-travel murder mystery starring a cybernetic centaur and his non-corporeal nemesis Mister Stinkcloud, you can totally do that (and I would totally read it).
If your tastes lean more towards latter Han Dynasty poetry or you have a forever-burning desire to tell the true story of Second Punic War – but in the style of a sea shanty, of course – you can totally self-publish that as well.
You are the CEO of You, Inc. after all. However, if you want a career as a professional author you must consider the market.
Finding the Sweet Spot
This doesn’t mean you have to sell out, whatever that means. But you do have to seek the overlap between what you like to write and what actually sells.
Commercial considerations don’t end there – not if you are focused on building a career. If you are just a hobbyist, that’s perfectly fine and valid.
(And that’s not intended in any pejorative sense whatsoever. Both paths are valid. Just clearly delineating between writers seeking to build a full-time income and everyone else because the former requires a different toolkit.)
The career-minded self-publisher should note that novels sell much better than short stories. (But here’s some specific advice for short story writers.) And it’s far easier to build a full-time income if you write a series versus only publishing standalones. At least, that’s true for most genres and niches.
Virtually every piece of self-publishing advice must be caveated. Writers and readers and books are so diverse that often anything goes. Some generalities are necessary when dispensing advice, though, or else everything will end up qualified to death. So, let’s proceed with this firmly in mind: there’s an exception to every rule and authors love breaking rules.
Key point here is this: your personal preferences are irrelevant in one sense; the market doesn’t care what you prefer.
Going From Standalones to a Series
I started out self-publishing in several different genres. I focused more on short stories and standalones. As such, I can tell you the following with complete confidence.
It is much easier to make money if you focus on novel-length work in a commercially viable niche. A world or characters you can potentially spin out into a series too.
This advice really isn’t as limiting as it might sound; the market has swelled and balkanized to the point where that’s a rather generous runway for your story-plane and all sorts of sub-genres have become viable for self-publishers.
Maybe you’ll even surprise yourself! Personally, I found the process of considering the market and plotting out a potential series more enjoyable than predicted. And the increasing royalty checks from Amazon should make a rather comforting salve to any remaining discomfort.
Writing a book is an impressive feat. Getting all those words in the correct order is not as easy as Hollywood might suggest. And you should certainly congratulate yourself if you reach The End. You have genuinely achieved something special. And that puts you ahead of most people with literary inclinations. People who often never even start the book they have been talking about for years. Or rarely get beyond a few pages.
So, well done you. But now the real work starts.
Suggested Resources for Writing:
On Writing by Stephen King is a stone cold classic. This was the book that gave me the kick in the pants needed to go from coffee shop poseur to actual writer. Part-memoir, part-craft advice, it’s as interesting as it is readable – whether you’re a fan of his fiction or not. Especially great for beginners.
Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker is more for intermediate and experienced authors. It’s my favorite book on the thorny issue of plotting. It doesn’t matter if you are a resolute pantser (i.e. an author who doesn’t plot ahead). This wonderful book will teach you how to take readers on an emotionally satisfying journey. And as you will learn in this book, that’s the most fundamental aspect of storytelling.
Let’s Get Digital is by me, so, whatever. But it is a comprehensive guide to every step in the self-publishing process. And it has a bit more to say about writing to market than you get above – at least how I view it. Most importantly: it has a bunch more of my favorite writing resources if you liked these recommendations. Also, it’s free, so if you have a spare click or two in your pocket… it’s all yours. Can’t say cheaper than that.
Finally, I don’t want writers of shorter stories to be dissuaded by this hard-nosed advice. There are plenty of ways that shorter pieces can work for you, and this guide goes through all your options.
2. Find A Professional Editor
Your work must be professionally edited if you are going to ask readers to pay for it. This is your one big compulsory expense in the entire self-publishing process. Feel free to plow your own furrow with almost anything else but it’s important not to skimp on editing.
I also suggest not looking at it as a cost per se. It’s an investment in you and your book and your professional development as a writer. I still learn a lot every time I go through the editorial process, even with my experience; it’s always money well spent. Let’s hope I placed that semi-colon correctly because I get hoisted by my own Picard every time I write about editing.
Hire a Pro
One of the biggest flubs a greenhorn self-publisher can make is to skip hiring a professional editor. Some try to do the editing themselves. Others get a journalist friend, or the teacher who lives next door, to edit their book. With all due respect to journalists and teachers (and DIYers), editing is a highly specialized skill set. Having a good grasp of grammar or a strong sense of style is insufficient.
Remember, there’s no bush league in publishing; your work will grace the shelves alongside the biggest books from the most famous authors in the world… and will be competing with those big names when trying to get reader attention.
Yes, editing can be expensive. But I’ll show you what type of editing you must outsource, and what you can handle in-house.
The Editorial Process
This is really confusing for newbies because there are multiple types of editing. Multiple kinds of editors. Different labels are in use for each of these editorial stages as well. And then sometimes terms are used slightly differently in self-publishing versus traditional publishing – just to muddy the waters further.
- Content editing can be alternatively referred to as story editing or developmental editing. (Or dev edits, for fans of saving time.)
- Structural editing could be viewed as part of content editing, or its own separate thing.
- Sometimes line editing and copy editing are used interchangeably. These days, in the world of self-publishing at least, both are usually done together by a copy editor. But technically they are distinct types of editing and are handled separately by traditional publishers – certainly the bigger ones, who have a more drawn-out editorial process.
Reaching for the sherry yet? I don’t blame you.
Let me simplify this, with apologies to devotees of editorial nuance. Here’s how it breaks down for the typical self-publisher.
This is exactly what it sounds like: an author editing their own book. It’s not a replacement for professional editing in any way *even when self-publishing). Let me be clear on that before someone smacks me upside the head with the Chicago Manual of Style (17th Edition).
Rather, self-editing is what an author must do before sending their manuscript to a professional editor. And if problems arise during the editorial process a manuscript might come back to you for further self-editing.
It’s alternatively known as developmental editing or content editing, but whatever you call story editing, it focuses on the big picture. Story stuff.
Is your “high concept” actually quite dumb? Did everyone see your “surprising” twist coming a mile away? Is the central romantic relationship credible? Are your jokes missing the mark? Is your heroine acting in such an out-of-character way that your readers are going to hurl their Kindles en masse into a lake? That kind of thing.
At this point I should note that many self-publishers will use beta readers instead of hiring a developmental editor. A fully hands-on developmental edit is just so expensive. Which is because proper developmental editing is very time-consuming, not because such editors are some form of literary brigand.
Feedback from beta readers is usually incorporated at this point, in conjunction with doing multiple drafts and several self-editing passes. All this means the order of these first three steps can be highly fluid for people self-publishing. But they will all be completed before moving on to the next stage.
Reason you need all the above in order first is that copy editing doesn’t look at that story stuff. Instead it’s about your use of language and mechanics – spelling, grammar, punctuation, and so on.
Traditionally, line editing is separate and focuses on style (and is done before copy editing). However, copy editors serving the self-publishing market especially understand that these roles are often combined these days. Your copy editor should look at overall language usage. Things like repetition – and whether a sentence scans correctly or is overly clunky – as well as eliminating errors.
This is the final stage in the overall editorial process. After proofing, your manuscript will be locked down and the Ancient Ones will be invoked to watch over the ensuing debauchery.
You can handle proofing personally if you have an eye for errors – all that temping I did paid off! – but also remember that we can be particularly blind to mistakes in our own work.
Just make sure someone scans the text for typos, as they will surely be there, even with the best copy editor in the world. Authors can fiddle with a manuscript when it comes back from an editor, thus introducing fresh errors.
My Personal Process
If you want to dive deeper into the world of editing, and listen to me yabber on about how my own editorial and self-publishing process plays out for both fiction and non-fiction, then read my comprehensive guide to The Five Stages of Editing.
Keep in mind that my process won’t necessarily be your process. You will discover what works best for your own self-publishing enterprise over time. Just ensure, at minimum, that you:
- self-edit your book until it’s as good as it possibly can be
- hire a professional copy editor, incorporate the necessary changes
- do your proofing until all typos and errors are eliminated.
Suggested Resources for Editing:
My post on the five stages in a proper edit is as comprehensive as it sounds. This will also help you find your own professional editor.
And then if you want to specifically learn more about self-editing – what it consists of, why it’s not a replacement for professional editing, and how it still plays a role in self-publishing a professional book – then check out my article Self-Editing Explained.
Aside from my own horn-tooting, I strongly recommend the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (and I respectfully suggest that non-fiction authors will learn a lot from it as well).
Elements of Style by Strunk & White is also a classic for a reason and should be on every author’s reading list. Even if you stray from the old-school strictures of Strunk & White when developing your own voice, it behooves you to first learn the rules. Achieve clarity and precision before spreading those wings you are so eager to flap.
3. Know Your Niche & Nail Your Branding
Time to put on your business hat; your nascent self-publishing empire shouldn’t ground to a halt while your book is being flayed by its editor. There are many things you could – and should – be doing in the meantime. Aside from writing the next book of course, which is always the most important task of all on your authorial To Do list.
However, most writers are creatively tired after a few hours in the word-mines, without necessarily being physically spent. Everyone is different with this, but I like doing my creative writing in the morning and any business, admin, research, or marketing tasks in the afternoon. Evenings, of course, are for exploring my fine collection of premium hams.
Determine Your Specific Niche
Anyway, one such business task which you should devote yourself to immediately is getting to know your niche. This isn’t an academic exercise, or speculative research for some unspecified future use. It’s necessary for self-publishers to understand the readers they are selling to.
I should stress that your particular niche is different to your overall genre, more specific. You may write under the fantasy banner, but your specific sub-genre might be grimdark epic fantasy. In the big world of romance, your niche might be contemporary romance or historical romance. And under an overall genre umbrella like thrillers, you may specifically write serial killer thrillers.
Don’t panic if these labels are unfamiliar; you will pick them up pretty quickly and only really need to be know those in your genre.
Research Your Sub-Category On Amazon
Some niches map neatly to specific sub-categories in the Kindle Store, where there are over 14,000 categories and sub-categories. You may already be aware of several such “shelves” which might be suitable for your book. If not, you must spend some time browsing around the Kindle Store on Amazon and identifying potential sub-categories. (International self-publishers: make sure to do this in the USA store – it’s the biggest market for almost any book.)
Online bookstores have distinct advantage over physical ones in that you can place your book on multiple “shelves” at once – which helps readers discover your work. But it’s important for many reasons that you only place your books where they are a good fit. (Not least because this will influence which readers Amazon recommends your work to!)
What is Packaging?
It’s important that your book looks the part, has a similar style of cover to what already sells well in the genre, that the pricing is in line with the books it will be shelved beside, and that the blurb is written in the requisite style.
This is your book’s “packaging.” The first step to putting your book in a package that will be familiar and enticing to readers is to know what is already working in your genre.
The cover for a bestselling contemporary romance tends to look very different to the cover for a bestselling historical romance. When you survey your niche, you will notice commonalities in every aspect of the book’s packaging – right down to little details like the type of fonts used and the voice that the book description is written in.
Find Commonalities In Your Niche
Familiarize yourself with your niche(s) on Amazon. Look through the Top 100 for your respective sub-categories. Make note of these commonalities, how these bestselling books are presented to readers. For bonus points, also take note of the authors who are selling well – particularly those who are aiming at the same readers.
Don’t be afraid to compare yourself to household names or mega-selling authors. This is a market research exercise, not public bragging which you might regret.
It’s not the time to be demure. If you are aiming at Nora Roberts’ readers, then note how her books are packaged.
Just don’t slavishly copy anyone. There is a big difference between recognizing that descriptions for bestselling urban fantasies tend to be written in first-person by a sassy heroine, and ripping off the branding of another author by using the exact same fonts and composition for your covers. The latter isn’t just unethical, it could also get you in legal trouble.
Suggested Resources for Branding:
Self-publishing is getting better and better at branding and positioning. Some authors are naturals and instinctively know their niche and how to express that in a book’s packaging. Others can be good at learning what’s hot in their genre but struggle more with the execution. A few can get in a tizzy with every aspect… but panic not, everyone can learn this.
I have a free course called Starting From Zero which has an entire module on exactly how you can research your niche, and then implement it as well.
Just remember to pay special attention to your cover. In fact, let’s all do that right now.
4. Design Your Cover
You may get your cover designed at an earlier point in the process. Indeed, some organized self-publishers have the cover designed first. It doesn’t matter as long as you have it in good time.
Everyone judges a book by its cover, in case that wasn’t obvious.
Your cover is often handling the critical job of that first impression with a reader. A great cover won’t usually lead to success on its own but a bad cover will surely sink you.
This is your only other expense which is pretty much non-negotiable. Unlike editing, however, there are decent options for those on a budget.
Cover Design Costs
The cost of a custom cover can be considerable – up to $500 is common, although the sky is the limit. However, it’s worth it. A great cover can do half the selling for you and will ensure that only the right readers click on your book. Whereas a poor cover will repel nearly everyone… which makes selling your book an impossible task.
Too many self-publishers skimp on editing or covers, and then waste money on marketing – which invariably fails because they didn’t invest enough in producing a professional product. A cheap or homemade cover is often a false economy. Replacing it can be an expensive lesson.
I understand the temptation to design your own cover but unless you are an experienced designer, I recommend hiring a pro.
Besides, if you can’t afford a custom cover right now, there are some excellent money-saving options.
Pre-made covers are professionally designed too, just not to your specifications. But those can be great quality too. There are many pre-made cover sites, and quality varies a lot. GoOnWrite.com is the best of the bunch. You can browse a huge selection of pre-mades, broken down by genre, from just $45.
Suggested Resources for Covers:
I have a giant article covering every aspect of book cover design which you really must read. It doesn’t just show you how to hire a pro (for a reasonable price), it goes one further again and teaches you exactly how to brief your designer so that you get the perfect cover for your story. (This is the secret sauce btw.)
It also has guidance for those on limited budgets, and those intrepid types who ignore my warnings and design their own covers anyway. By the way, this post will also help you generate the blurb for your book, and if you want to find out why I pair those two things together, well, get thee yonder.
5. Lay Out Your Book To Capture Readers
Your book is finished, edited, and covered, huzzah! But you have a few more preparatory tasks before you actually publish it.
For example, you will need to format the ebook file so it displays nicely on every device. But before you can commence formatting, you need to consider your book layout.
“Boring!” you might think, and you would be right. But the decisions you make here could have a big effect on those royalty checks. Which is the very opposite of boring, if you ask money-mad me.
Optimal Book Layout
This is one area where savvy self-publishers are ahead of even the biggest publishers. And where you can get an edge on most of the competition – with just a little prep.
Experienced self-publishers know that the moment a reader finishes your book is the very best time to ask them for something. For example, to buy Book 2. Sign up to your mailing list. Review on Amazon. Maybe follow your Facebook Page, if that’s how you roll. This is something the large publishers tend to neglect, one way or another.
Those more traditionally minded publishers also tend to put in pages and pages of extraneous content at the start of an ebook – just because that’s what they have always done with print books. This kind of thinking permeates much of their approach to ebooks.
Slim Down Your Front Matter
Experienced self-publishers know that many readers will sample an ebook book before downloading. You want them to taste the meat as quickly as possible. That’s what will truly sell your book. Not how deftly you thank your ex-wife or how sincerely you express your love for Pomeranians.
Those sections like “About the Author” – which might traditionally appear at the front of a paperback – are moved to the back of an ebook by smart self-publishers. They are accessible to readers with a button-press regardless.
I’m sure you see a lot of variation in the books you read, once you know what to look for, but this is when area where you really must take your cues from successful self-publishers. We tend to have very slimmed down front matter to help convert more browsers into buyers, and spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of end matter is most effective, because that’s an even bigger marketing opportunity.
Make It Easy For Readers
Little details are important here. I remember switching from a polite request to review my book on Amazon, to one containing a clickable link to make things easier for them, and my review rate tripled overnight.
How you word phrase “upsell” will hugely influence how effective it is – this is where you dangle another book for reader to purchase, usually the next in the series. If you are shy or understated, then you won’t get readers excited and they won’t act on your suggestion right away – which is essential before your readers get distracted and move on to the next thing.
The time to capture that spark of interest is now.
If you are publishing your first book, then you won’t have anything else to sell readers but that doesn’t mean you should do nothing here. It’s absolutely critical that you use this opportunity to get readers to sign up to your mailing list – you should always be seeking to grow your mailing list, which is the most important marketing tool any author has. Asking (politely) for reviews is always smart.
Don’t waste this opportunity.
Suggested Resources on Book Layout:
My free book Following will teach you how to set-up your basic reader-capturing apparatus: your website, your mailing list, and your Facebook Page. And it will also show you how to generate content which you can share in your newsletters and social media updates, so that you can grow your following and keep readers engaged until your next release.
Following is only available as a sign-up bonus when you join my mailing list, and – hey! – there’s your first lesson in email marketing too: offering readers an enticing bonus is a great way to boost your mailing list.
If you sign up to my free marketing newsletter, you’ll see how all that works in real time plus you will get useful marketing advice every Friday plus you will get a copy of Following as a welcome gift. A win-win if ever there were.
Still not convinced? Hmmm. Maybe read the reviews on Goodreads?
6. Format Your MS Into A Reflowable Ebook
We’re barreling down the final stretch now so hold on to your helmets. Next we will turn that proofed manuscript into an ebook. This is a special kind of reflowable file that will magically resize and reshape itself for whatever device it is being read on… if you do it right.
If you get this wrong, you will see a massive spike in returns and a bunch of one-star reviews. So let’s avoid that.
The formatting options are so much better than when I started self-publishing ten years ago – which mostly involved crazy adventures into coding. (Reader: they weren’t so crazy.)
These days you have a number of satisfactory approaches, depending on your personal peccadilloes.
Hire a Pro
You can hire a professional formatter very cheaply and a full-length book can cost you less than $100. This is the easiest option obviously, but not without its downsides.
If you are just outsourcing then you won’t have the ability to make any changes yourself. Some recommended formatting services like BBeBooks will fix a number of typos for you at no extra charge though.
Use a Tool
There are a number of excellent formatting tools for self-publishers these days, many of which are free. And there even more terrible ones, so perhaps stick closely to my recommendations here. A bad tool can introduce errors to your book file, which you might only be aware of when the one-star reviews come rolling in.
If you are already using Scrivener, that does a reasonable job of turning out ebooks. Vellum is the #1 tool for creating ebook files, but is Mac-only, and not the cheapest anyway. Free options include the formatting tools at Reedsy and Draft2Digital.
Downsides of this approach are that it takes a little more of your time than outsourcing. Also, some of the tools (like Vellum) can turn out very similar looking ebooks – certainly I can always spot a Vellum book as a reader. (Although that’s not such a bad thing, to be honest – Vellum books usually look pretty neat.)
You might be a little more limited in how much you can customize your ebook, however.
Code it Yourself
The downsides need to be flagged up front here; this option is not for the faint-hearted. You will need to be at least somewhat tech savvy, and have lots and lots of patience. But if you are willing to spend the time – i.e. to learn how to code your own ebook in a HTML formatter – then you will be able to format your own books in a jiffy, fix any errors whenever you like, customize the look if your ebook any which way, and also potentially develop a skill to help finance your self-publishing business as well.
Plenty of self-publishers have a side-gig as an editor or cover designer or formatter – especially at the start. If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, check out my free guide to formatting your own ebooks.
Suggest Resources on Ebook Formatting
BBeBooks is my go-to formatter. I do my own ebooks, but Paul Salvette does all my print books. He also formats the ebooks for many fellow authors who highly recommended him. And if you want even more formatting service recommendations, check out my free guide Let’s Get Digital – which has all sorts of recommended providers: editors, designers, formatters, and more.
Vellum is everyone’s preferred automated tool for formatting ebooks. Well, everyone that owns a Mac. Us plebs with PCs are out of luck. Some use Scrivener – which is a word processor but has a reasonable ebook export function. Others use free tools like the formatter from Draft2Digital.
But hey, want to code your own ebook and make sure it looks exactly how you want and is 100% error-free? You can totally do that. I do that! Here’s my guide to formatting your own ebooks. Warning: only for the technically minded. And the patient. On the plus side, you learn a new skill.
7. Decide Your Price
You have everything needed to begin uploading the various retailers, but I recommend a couple more bits of preparation first. Because you will be asked to make some important decisions during the process, which can throw you for a loop.
Pricing is one of the biggest, and one of the areas where newer authors can have the biggest misconceptions. Self-publishing and ebooks have turned pricing on its head. Nowhere is the gap between self-publishers and traditional publishers more stark than when it comes to book prices.
Self-publishing often views price as a lever, whereas traditional publishers use ebook pricing as a bulwark – aiming to slow the transition to digital and protect the print market. Self-publishers must realise that a huge amount of nonsense about pricing flows from the desire of traditional publishers to make ebooks less attractive to readers.
On the author level, the most common misconception is to confuse price and value, and to make the mistake of thinking that the price you attach to your book either reflects or influences that value. Whereas experienced self-publishers view pricing as a marketing tool.
Those who have published a few books know that the price on the book cover is not so important as the money the book is bringing in, and they will tend to choose the price that will make them the most money – it’s often that simple.
Look to Your Genre
The other main consideration here is your genre. There can be a wide variance in price depending on the kind of book you write. Romance novels can be far cheaper than a business book, for example, so make sure you are within the normal range for your niche.
And make sure that you are pricing like self-publishers, rather than big traditional publishers. They aren’t seeking to maximize income from ebooks, like you are – they are often more concerned about protecting their print sales, as mentioned, and will artificially price ebooks higher as a result. Copy them and your sales will suffer.
Don’t price too low though. You need to leave room for yourself to run the occasional price promotion. Leading off with a bargain basement price won’t give you much wriggle room.
One last thing: when surveying your niche, be careful to parse out experienced authors who might be doing something aggressive like a 99c launch. They are deploying a specific strategy involving multiple books, which you can ignore for now.
If in doubt, a price of $2.99-$4.99 won’t see you far wrong, and will ensure you get the highest royalty rates on all retailers.
Suggested Resources on Pricing:
I have a longer digression on ebook pricing you can read. I especially recommend perusing that if you are reticent to price cheaply or run promotions. Or if you have ever used the phrase, “I should get paid more for my book than people spend on a coffee.” (Sorry for picking on you like that, but this is important!)
If you’re skeptical, here’s a taste: “Price is not a hill to die on, but a powerful tool for levering your books into the charts, rewarding fans, generating buzz, and expanding your audience.” Well said, says I. (About me.)
8. Optimize Your Metadata
Metadata can be a scary word to normies, but it just means little pieces of information that you attach to your book when self-publishing it. See? Not so freaky after all.
It’s basically just some fields you fill out when uploading – nothing to fear. And these bits of information are things you will be familiar with (one hopes!) like your name and your book’s title. Others you might be less familiar with include categories and keywords – and these are the really important bits of metadata you should particularly focus on.
Collating Your Metadata
If you followed my recommendations above on knowing your niche, you will have made a head start on the category front. And if you read my monster post on cover design, you will be already lapping the ne’er do wells who skipped over it. But keywords might be a bit trickier for you.
I don’t know how far down the geekhole you want to go on this topic – I have a book called Amazon Decoded which gets pretty far down there in places, for those so inclined. However, I can also give you the quick-and-dirty version right here, because I’m good like that.
You can only pick two categories when uploading – from a rather limited menu. But you can add a lot more later (up to ten ebook and print book categories, in fact), so be thorough in your research now.
Go through all those hilariously niche sub-categories on the Kindle Store which we mentioned earlier. And find as many suitable homes for your book as possible. Just keep it all relevant. Don’t throw your book in anywhere it looks out of place; that will hurt you long term.
Head over to Amazon.com and start a-searching. Type in things that you think readers might enter when searching for books like yours. Amazon will helpfully suggest common searches to you as you start typing. Draw up a list of potential keywords and then whittle it down to the seven most promising.
You can easily change this stuff after publishing so don’t sweat it too much. Non-fiction authors might want to spend a bit more time on their keywords; non-fiction readers use the search box more than their fiction friends.
Note that you need seven keyword strings. Each string can be made up of multiple words, with a cap of fifty characters on each. On Amazon anyway. Other retailers vary a little.
Suggest Resources on Metadata:
I have a video over at my fancy new YouTube channel which breaks down categories for you. Come for the mustache, stay for the beard, as they say. (Note: they do not say this.)
As for the krazy world of keywords, the description of the above video will give you a bunch of resources to explore.
Finally, for the ubergeeks who want to get deep – so deep! – into the overall world of metadata, how the Kindle Store works, Amazon’s famous bookselling algorithms, and how you can use all that secret knowledge to sell lots of books, well, I got you covered.
9. Distribute Your Book
Warning: this is nowhere near as straightforward as you might assume.
There are lots of places where you could sell your book but Amazon has a curveball with your penname on it. Welcome to one final area of self-publishing where it pays to be prepared before you press that big red button (it’s actually orange but whatever).
Always Publish Direct to Amazon
Self-publishing on Amazon is a no-brainer. You should always publish direct to Amazon – i.e. without using a middleman – as it has the most readers, by far. It’s also the easiest marketplace to gain traction, in a happy act of serendipity.
If you want to dig into all the nuts and bolts of publishing on Amazon, check out my free self-publishing guide Let’s Get Digital. But the highlights are:
- no upfront fees
- a 70% royalty rate for most sales
- global reach
- payment 2-3 months after a sale is made
- publish print and audio editions
- access to an advertising platform.
Saying yes to all that is a very easy decision but then things get complicated.
When uploading to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) you get offered a few treats to entice you into make your book exclusive to Amazon; it’s not an easy choice.
In fact, enrolling in KDP Select – the name of the program which requires exclusivity – is still a matter of hot debate almost ten years since it was introduced. You may have seen authors debating whether to be “wide” or “exclusive” and this is what they’re referring to. (Now you know.)
Even experienced authors who know the business inside out can go back-and-forth on KDP Select and many will simply try it both ways and see which works best. That’s a viable approach, by the way, as you only commit to Amazon exclusivity for 90 days at a time and decide on a book-by-book basis.
Pros and Cons of KDP Select
There are so many nuances to this decision that an entire chapter of my free self-publishing guide Let’s Get Digital is devoted to breaking down all the different scenarios. It is a very individual decision, so spend a bit of time weighing the pros and cons – they are quite clearly defined but you must decide for yourself.
In short, the two primary advantages of enrolling in KDP Select are access to a pair of tasty promotional tools which make it a bit easier to reach readers, and then entrance to the Kindle Unlimited program – which is Amazon’s Netflix for books, in case you have been so deep in the writing cave you haven’t heard of the biggest disruption to book publishing since the last time Amazon turned the business upside down.
Some authors love it, others despise it. I would say that it’s complicated but that would be lowballing things by a ridiculous degree. See Let’s Get Digital for a lot more on all that, if you’re curious.
Going Wide: Outside the World of Amazon
If you resist Amazon’s siren call of exclusivity, there are at least four more retailers you will want to list with:
- Apple Books
- Barnes & Noble Press
- Kobo Writing Life
- Google Play
Note that Amazon has around three quarters of the market, and Apple is probably a good bit bigger than the rest combined. Yes, Google is a pipsqueak – at least in ebook terms. More stores than that exist, but they control miniscule slivers of the market.
You have the option of going direct with all those retailers. There are some advantages to doing so, including getting paid a little more. All these retailers have broadly similar terms to Amazon but check out Let’s Get Digital for the finer points.
Using a Distributor
Using a distributor is a sensible alternative if you wish to simplify your life. While going direct to Amazon is an imperative, using a distributor to reach the rest is a common choice.
There are a small number of reputable distributors and my strong recommendation is Draft2Digital. It will distribute your book to Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and a whole host of smaller retailers.
Draft2Digital also serves some subscription services like Scribd, and enables library sales as well. You can do all that with one upload, rather than having to deal with each store separately, which is quite the timesaver. All this will cost you about 10% of your royalties.
Smashwords is a legitimate alternative if you wish to explore other options.
Completists may wish to upload to Draft2Digital – even if they are already going direct with the other retailers. Library sales and Scribd can make this extra step worthwhile. Just note that you must go direct to Google Play regardless; they don’t work with distributors.
Suggested Resources for Distribution:
Kindle Direct Publishing will get your book on Amazon stores worldwide, and has lots of info on the platform. Apple Books For Authors is your port-of-call for Apple. Barnes & Noble Press is what will do the same for America’s largest bookstore chain. Kobo Writing Life will publishing you on Kobo, which is the biggest player in Canada and has grabbed a chunk of some interesting global markets. Finally, Google Play Books Partner Centre is the snappy name for the portal which will get you onto the smallest ebookstore on the biggest search engine in the world.
And then if you want to explore my recommended distributor, that’s Draft2Digital.
You can spend hours combing the help pages above to get all the information you will need on ebook formats and cover file sizes and royalty rates and payment terms – hey, it’s a free world! – but if you want a handy side-by-side comparison of everything, then Let’s Get Digital will see you right.
As for the slightly important step of actually publishing the darn thing, I have a video guide for you which walks you through the process step-by-step for KDP, explaining what to put in all those fields – so many fields! Yegads. The other retailers are all different, but similar enough that once you figure out Amazon you should be able to handle the rest yourself.
10. Create A Marketing Plan
Barely has your celebratory prosecco been quaffed when you come to the awful realization that there is more work ahead of you yet. Even if you diligently followed all the other steps and truly did publish your book like a pro, you know have to sell the blighter. And doing that involves getting noticed in a pile of eight million others.
Come back! Come back! I have solutions. I just wanted to impress upon you the scale of the challenge so you don’t start slacking now that you are a Fancy Pants Published Author.
Selling books is totally doable, thousands and thousands of us do it every day, and we all started from zero. Keep that in mind when encountering the inevitable frustrations which lie ahead.
Divesting Yourself of Marketing Myths
First step here is basically deprogramming yourself. Your head is, most likely, full of all sorts of gunk about how to sell books which is utterly, utterly false – or perhaps pertains to a world of print and traditionally published books, where self-publishers will normally sell almost everything online, and an overwhelming majority of sales will be ebooks.
- book signings
- pressing the flesh
- talk shows
- radio interviews
- media attention
- tweeting incessantly about your book, or
- hiring a PR whizzkid – even if you have money to burn.
“What’s left?” you might reasonably ask… in a slightly despairing manner. Well, plenty.
And none if it involves donning a pimp suit, harassing people into purchasing, spamming, engaging in any kind of deceptiveness, or even entering meatspace – should that be the kind of body horror you routinely recoil from even in normal times.
Good news, right?
What Really Sells Books
What we actually do to sell books is a little more prosaic: we run price promotions and free promotions. We have newsletters for our readers and websites about our books. We spend a little bit of money on Groupon-style sites to highlight those deals. And… that’s it really, to begin with.
Later on, when you have more books and experience and royalty checks to spend, things will get more complicated – oh so complicated! – and you may get deep into any or all of branding, advertising, box sets, list swaps, group promotions, series deals, launch strategies, algorithms, and all sorts.
It’s a whole world, really, and you can choose your marketing poison when and how you like.
But those reassurances don’t make the prospect of marketing any less daunting to most authors. I was totally cheating myself. I have a marketing background and used to work for a tech giant – which is quite the twofer given the skills you need as a self-publisher these days. However, I understand how incomprehensible digital marketing can seem to many writers.
Building A Marketing Campaign
Self-publishing is all about sharing knowledge and paying it forward – that’s how I got my start. To help everyone get to grips with book marketing, I have created a free course called Starting From Zero.
It’s pretty extensive and covers everything an author needs to know when building their audience and finding their first readers. And it really is free! There’s no catch, no bait-and-switch, and I’m not trying to sell you anything else either – even the two coursebooks are free as well.
Enroll here today and talk the course at your own pace. Let me give you fair warning though: just because it’s free, that doesn’t mean you won’t have to work. I’m pretty serious about that part. Self-publishing like a pro takes time and effort. Don’t expect shortcuts or gimmicks or magic tricks.
But I will give you a very effective method for selling books, and show you how to create your own marketingplan. A career plan, even.
How To Get Reviews
If you are thinking that having a bunch of positive reviews on your book will help with the selling part, well, you would be right on the money. Here’s how to get them as a self-publisher, without spending a penny. I apologize in advance for Peak Lockdown Beard.
[Bonus] Build Your Author Platform
“And that’s not all,” he said with a ridiculous flourish. Some of the most critical marketing tasks actually take place before you self-publish your book. And I’m not talking about anything intangible (or questionable) like “building buzz.”
You might have heard the phrase author platform but I’m also guessing you didn’t hear it defined very precisely – or at all, I’m betting. I have a short, free book which will teach you what a real author platform is, why having one is so crucial to success in self-publishing, and – best of all – exactly how to build your own author platform.
Free Step-by-Step Guide to Platform Building
Following also tells you what you can skip too – surely a relief after this firehose of information. It boils platform building down to the truly effective essentials: a website, a newsletter, and a Facebook Page. (And you can even ditch the latter if you are really squeezed for time.)
It goes through the mechanics of building all that step-by-step, and show you how to grow your platform in a sustainable way – a platform that actually sells books.
Sign up here to get your free copy of Following. And see you in the charts, compadre.
Your Questions On Self-Publishing
Unfortunately, I get far too many emails these days to respond to everyone – it would be the full time job of several someones – but I do want to help as many people as possible.
If you have any questions, pop them into the comment box below and I’ll reply when I can.